Cyrano

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By Philip Pearce

IT’S INTERESTING the way that PacRep’s current season takes two central heroes of early 20th century European drama, Peter Pan and Cyrano de Bergerac, and gives them each a new look. Plus the frank theatricality of a handful of actors playing a whole lot of the characters involved in the stories of their lives.

In the June/July production of Peter and the Starcatcher twelve actors played more than 30 roles in a swashbuckling prequel to the August/July musical version of Peter Pan.

Now there’s an exciting new version of Cyrano, which tells the well-loved tale but pares nearly 50 speaking roles down to 27 to be played by a cast of nine.

When you think about it, Peter and Cyrano are cut from the same mold. Both are chock full of swaggering self-confidence, both are supernaturally brilliant swordsmen, both are sworn enemies of the social status quo. “I want,” Cyrano explains at one point, “to reduce the number of bows I have to make in a day.” Peter doesn’t want to grow up and have to make that kind of decision in the first place.

Like many another theater addict of my generation, I’ve always loved Rostand’s three hour, five-act marathon of moonlit romance, spontaneous poetry and dashing swordplay. But Michael Hollinger’s slick new translation and the fresh two-act adaptation of the text he shares with Aaron Posner make for a fast-paced and thoroughly satisfying evening in the Outdoor Forest Theater.

In a recent interview, Hollinger notes that the original script’s world of 17th century Paris isn’t exactly familiar territory to 21st century audiences. “It was important to me that the play speak to us, here and now, and therefore I made myself the litmus test of what would be accessible, immediate, funny, poignant, and so on.”

So there’s little left of Rostand’s blank verse or the sections of social comment on French society of the 1600’s. What comes across vividly is the central ironic dilemma of a man with a face so unsightly he can only use his supreme genius for poetic love talk to push his lady love into the arms of a handsome but tongue-tied rival.

Pacific Rep executive director Stephen Moorer is an active, touching and consistently funny Cyrano. He mines every vein of wit in the new script and catches most of the underlying pathos without ever slipping into the lilting Gielgud/Burton attitude and voice adopted by some Cyranos I’ve seen. His dying attack against social convention and phony officialdom is no reflective elegy, it’s a ruthless sword fight to the death.

This new version makes it easier to explore character motivations and navigate some of the finer points of 17th century French civic and military life by expanding the role of Le Bret. He’s no longer just Cyrano’s trusty military buddy; he’s a wise narrator who steps out of the action and into a spotlight to explain things directly to us ticket holders. It works admirably. Unlike Rostand’s audience but just like Shakespeare’s, we’ve reached a point where we like it when somebody pauses the story and comments on what’s going on. As always, Jeffrey T Heyer is clear and believable in the role.

The remainder of the players are busy and excellent, moving nimbly through two or three roles apiece. Jennifer Le Blanc is a beautiful, passionate Roxane, so swept up in a duet of Cyrano’s poetry and Gascon-cadet Christian de Neuvillette’s good looks that it takes her fourteen years to discover she’s been in love with the soul of one and only the body of the other.

Justin Gordon is an appealing Christian, a fresh military recruit who’s closely in touch with his feelings but clueless in expressing them. I liked his last-minute wide-eyed explosion of terror at having to woo the lovely Roxane, even coached by the eloquent Cyrano.

D Scott McQuiston is a bubbly and comically endearing Ragueneau, a pastry chef and would-be poet, who manages (in the interest of trimming down cast size) to shout protests at his wife for wrapping her pastries in the texts of his verses without her ever actually appearing on stage.

A small and energetic Andrew Mazer is convincingly tipsy as a bibulous cadet named Ligniere.  Lewis Rhames is willowy and comically inept as a plumed Parisian popinjay named De Valvert, one of a string of candidates for the hand of the fair Roxane. More purposeful and pompous is Michael Storm as another suitor, De Guiche, commander of Cyrano and Christian’s Gascon battalion. The versatile and surprising Garland Thompson moves effortlessly through five different roles, most notably in drag as Roxane’s busybody and sweet-toothed duenna and then in Rosary and wimple as the chatty, broom-wielding Sister Marthe.

Kenneth Kelleher’s direction manages, again and again, to make the nine-member cast look and act like a big crowd. My favorite segment of Act 1 is a sequence that doesn’t even happen in the old Rostand version. Cyrano, high and happy at some fond attention from his beloved Roxane, learns that a hundred sword-wielding thugs are planning a midnight ambush at the Porte de Nesle. He vows to bare his sword and carve them up, single handedly, one by one. Rostand’s script simply reports his success after the fact. Kelleher, Moorer and fight director Justin Gordon show it happening in a shadowy ballet of flashing swordplay which proves that perfectly timed farce can be both hilarious and beautiful.

I loved the show, but I had minor problems with the set design. The big outdoor theater stage allows for a lot of depth and width. But is the backstage area so limited that ingredients of Patrick McEvoy’s settings need to be stored in plain view instead of waiting in the wings to be wheeled on when required? The big quarter moon awaited its appearance in the balcony/garden scene from a position way upstage. And an unchanging background of blue-green wooden fretwork units gave a sense of clutter.

That said, it’s a must see, but take plenty of coats and blankets. It continues through October 15th.

 

 

American Night: The Ballad of Juan José

 By Philip Pearce

 AMERICAN NIGHT: THE BALLAD OF JUAN JOSÉ, which just opened a three weeks’ run at the Western Stage Studio, is a romping, irreverent darkly ironic take on centuries of culture clash between America and the immigrants seeking asylum or citizenship inside its walls. The prevailing tone of hard-hitting slapstick is a challenge the cast of nine work hard to meet. The range of its historic subject matter will probably be a challenge to some audiences. But I’m glad I saw it all the same. 

The “night” of the title is the night before a chronically hopeful Mexican everyman figure named Juan José  is due to take his exam for American citizenship. He falls asleep over his pack of US Constitution flash cards and dreams an extended and crazy panorama of past conflicts between America and a world full of threatening outsiders.  

Throughout the evening Adrian Torres plays Juan José with a wide-eyed explosive optimism. The remaining eight members of the cast together take on the roles of more than eighty other characters who fill in his waking hours with ICE border agents and Mormon missionaries and his sleepy-time encounters with a succession of erratic historic dream figures. Like a time traveler, he dazzles Lewis and Clark (Jack Clifford and Donna Federico) with the detail and accuracy of his AAA tour maps and politely declines their invitation to join an accommodating Shoshone matron named Sacagawea (DeAnna Diaz) as a guide on their westward trek. Whisked ahead in time, he meets and honors Ben and Viola Pettus, (Terrance Smith and Denisha Ervin) a heroic but unsung African American couple who runs a frontier tent hospital during a 19th century flu epidemic. He suffers the slings and arrows of World War 1 anti-anarchist panic, gets tangled in Depression capital and labor battles, meets Dylan and Baez at Woodstock and gets uplift and encouragement from Jackie Robinson. The show has a surreal and noisy brashness in keeping with author Richard Montoya’s years of work with the Bay Area political comedy troupe Culture Clash.  

As always, director Lorenzo Aragon sets up the sight-gags, the group mob movements and the individual one-liners with seasoned skill. But of all theatrical genres, farce is punishingly hard to play and farce with a sharp ironic edge is harder still. It’s one thing to establish a realistic stage character in relation to a stage-full of other realistic characters. It’s something else to change costume, persona and motivation every few minutes while trying to get laughs and make important political and social plot points clearly enough to insure that everyone in the audience gets it. Here, it works best in the simpler single issue two-header sequences like Andrés Ortiz  bugle-blasting his way into the boots and panama hat of a bombastic Teddy Roosevelt who’s so intent on bellowing patriotic platitudes and shooting wild animals that he never connects with the befuddled Juan José he is supposed to be meeting. The production is notably weaker in its  bigger, busier group scenes. The extended 1940s radio game show sequence with its hodge-podge of World War 2 racial and social controversies is confused and puzzling. Despite a lot of loud argument and some Glenn Miller background music the energy flags and the cast struggle in a foggy tangle of obscure issues.    

And that, in its way, is a problem with the show as a whole, important and relevant as its premise is. Montoya’s script sweeps through such a big swath of complicated  historic territory that, unless you’re a committed history buff, you’re apt to be more than occasionally baffled.  Important pieces of American history are being sent up; but if that’s all you know, you don’t get the joke. I was okay with the later crowd sequence where American bigots bicker with a noisy labor activist in 1930s San Francisco. But that’s only because I spent my primary and middle school years in the Bay Area, so I knew at once that the nasal Australian, skillfully caricatured by Jack Clifford, was a longshoreman labor boss named Harry Bridges. I wondered how many other opening night fans would be as baffled by Bridges as I was by that wartime game show. 

All that said, American Night is an important show. Once again Western Stage takes the risk of producing something that speaks to who we are and what we face here and now as Americans.   Some of the details will, as they did for me, send you scurrying back to David McCullough and Ron Chernow. But the roller coaster ride of bits of skewed history is at least a reminder that border wall fantasies and mindless xenophobia didn’t spring suddenly into being with the inauguration of Donald Trump. 

 

Weekly Magazine

THIS WEEK

MONTEREY JAZZ FESTIVAL this weekend at Monterey Fairgrounds. SORDID LIVES opens at Mountain Community Theater. BATTLE OF THE BIG BANDS in Carmel. AMERICAN NIGHT: THE BALLAD OF JUAN JOSÉ opens at The Western Stage. For links to these and other live performance events, click our CALENDAR and on the ads, left. 

HAIMOVITZ & HIS GOFFRILLER REUNITED

MAJOR DAMAGE to the instrument more than a year ago is finally repaired. Matt Haimovitz has played for Philip Glass in Big Sur. Click HERE   

PAYING LOCAL DUES

PHILIP GLASS’ Days & Nights Festival, for all its virtues and value for advocating the cause of new music, has never caught on with Monterey Bay audiences. It is not for want of talent and excellence, but rather a failure to connect with the area’s movers and shakers in that world of music. Those of us who have lived and engaged in the cultural life of the Monterey Bay have seen this scenario play out over and over. Failure has proved the coin of the realm for interlopers who have simply not paid their local respects. Philip Glass desperately wants to stake a claim here but, after years of trying, his festival has only scored well with small audiences. His local organization administrators appear to think that an expensive ad budget will turn the tide, but ultimately the fault lies with Glass himself. As a dedicated advocate for new music, I wish it weren’t so, just as I wish he would finally recognize that forming reciprocal relationships with like-minded area producers and presenters works best for each instead of assuming that his international reputation gives him automatic local cachet. SM

VIOLINIST DECLARES WAR ON WAR

UKRAINIAN MARINA BONDAS is determined to restore cultural values to her homeland. Click HERE  

PRESERVING SACRED SOUNDS

175 YEARS OF HENRY WILLIS organs in Britain.

WHAT VIOLA DAVIS REGRETS ABOUT ‘THE HELP’

THE ACCLAIMED FILM got it wrong, “…it wasn’t the voices of the maids that were heard.”  Click HERE  

ON CREATIVITY

2019 MARKS THE 200TH ANNIVERSARY of American poet Walt Whitman’s birth. Maria Popova explores his breakout Leaves of Grass. Click HERE   

WORLD’S LARGEST PERFORMING ARTS CENTER IS IN…?

TAIWAN. Now completed and set to open in October. Click HERE

HONKY TONK WOMEN

ROLLING STONES forty-nine years on.

FRESH REVIEW

MADELINE JARZEMBAK harp recital at Cabrillo Samper Recital Hall. Click HERE

NEXT WEEK

PIANIST GARRICK OHLSSON performs in Santa Cruz. CHINESE WARRIORS OF PEKING at World Theater in Seaside. PIANIST YEKWON SUNWOO plays for the Carmel Music Society. MONTEREY PENINSULA GOSPEL COMMUNITY CHOIR in Salinas. SANTA CRUZ CHAMBER PLAYERS season premiere in Aptos. DAYS & NIGHTS FEST plays Big Sur. SWEET JAZZ@EMBASSY in Seaside.

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Scott MacClelland, editor; Rebecca CR Brooks, associate editor